Yesterday evening, while I was spending time with my Uncle Lee, he received a telephone call inviting him here to speak with all of you at the United Nations and share both his experience at the World Trade Center as a firefighter as well as the different projects that he has been involved with since his oldest son Jonathan was killed while working as firefighter working that day at the Trade Center.
In essence, Uncle Lee said: I’m not going to able to make it tomorrow: but I have another firefighter here who I think would be a good fit. Now, in all honestly, Lee isn’t my real “uncle”, but rather, I grew up with his son. If you’re lucky, you have similar “uncles” in your life. They’re people who know you as well as your parents. You know their homes as well as your own… and you never have to ask before you open the refrigerator and poke your nose around. You know that as long as there are folks in the kitchen… you’re invited for dinner.
Later yesterday afternoon I learned that I’d be speaking with a group of young people from around the world about both our shared experience on Sept 11th as well as the concept of promoting peace. I thought “terrific” that sounds like a cool opportunity. After all, I’m not invited all that often to the United Nations. I grew up here in New York my entire life, but nonetheless, today is the very first time I’ve ever stepped through the gate.
And then I learned that I would be speaking the day after you guys were entertained by performers on stilts as well as a “word artist” who spoke in wonderfully colorful and vivid terms about safe sex. And I thought…great, I’m going to wear a suit and talk about 9/11 and everybody’s going to fall asleep. But nonetheless, I would like to try briefly to share with you a little about that day, and of course, tell you about my friend Jonathan.
When I think back to 9/11 I don’t often think the horrible sights. And I did indeed see horrible images. People were killed in front of my eyes when those buildings came down. And there were body parts on the ground in such a way that reminded me of the stories of the concentration camps in World War Two. But for whatever reason, I barely think of those visions, but rather, I think back to the graciousness that my fellow New Yorkers demonstrated towards one another during a day that seemed so surreal.
I remember the immigrants standing at their pushcarts giving away the bottles of water and iced tea to the crowds as they passed. And I mean that quite literally, not as a metaphor. There were hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the area, running away from the smoke, the fire and the horrible smell of fuel. These guys with carts, who were quite obviously struggling immigrants from foreign countries were standing there simply giving away all of their cold drinks one by one to strangers as they walked briskly away from the emergency scene.
I remember the men who stood for hours at the base of the Manhattan bridge and physically reached their hands out to hundreds and hundreds of strangers and helped them climb over the railings and get their footing on the bridge so that they could flee the area. Do you think that these men weren’t scared? Of course, they were. They were terrified. It was obvious that they were terrified. But they stayed. And they remained for hours… playing a very important role that day… because they knew what they were doing was important. It was more than important. It was critical.
That’s what my mind likes to remember from that day. The regular folks who weren’t rescue workers like us. They weren’t “doing their jobs”, but rather, they were simply doing what was right.
That’s “working for peace”, by the way. It’s great if you have hopes and dreams of becoming Prime Ministers or Presidents. If you aspire to become diplomats and walk through the entrance of this great institution every day… but God knows, that’s not the only way to work for peace. You work for peace by doing what’s right, even if you’re the only one doing it. You work for peace if everyone you know is engaged in behavior that you know is wrong, and you have the integrity to say to yourself: I know that’s not right.
My friend Jonathan, who was killed on 9/11, he was working for peace. He knew what was right and he knew what was wrong. And I don’t mean the little things. He was no angel. Jonathan died at 29 years old. He was my first friend to get married and have kids (although not necessarily in that order.) And just recently the statue of limitations has expired and I’ve begun to share with his parents all of the times we cut school and broke the rules when we were kids. But when it really mattered …Jonathan did what was right.
And I encourage you to do the same. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to spend time with world leaders and receive all sorts of awards. You simply need to understand when you have one of those rare moments to do what’s right. When God gives you a pushcart full of water and terrified people running past. When he gives you two strong hands and the opportunity to lift strangers up on a bridge and help them land on their own two feet. Those are the moments that matter.